Alaska’s ‘landless communities’ discuss possibilities for settlement

2015 photo of Harriet Brouilette, the tribal administrator for Chilkoot Indian Association. (Photo by Emily Files/KHNS)

Nearly 50 years ago, Native corporations were created for hundreds of villages through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Thousands of acres of land were transferred to each of these corporations. However, Alaska Natives from Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Tenakee Springs and Wrangell were excluded from the settlement. 

A coalition of the five so-called landless communities has been advocating for legislation that would provide them land and allow them to set up their own corporations. The coalition will be holding meetings in each community in the coming months. 

It is unclear why some communities in Southeast Alaska were not included in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In 1993 Congress asked the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research to look into the issue. They found there was no distinction between communities that were recognized and those that were left out of the settlement. 

Harriet Brouillette is the tribal administrator for the Chilkoot Indian Association in Haines. She says she first started advocating for the five landless communities shortly after graduating from college. 

“It has just been a continuous process since then. I went from being a 26-year-old out of college to being now a grandmother and still trying to find some justice for the Chilkoot people,” Brouillette says.

A recent bill drafted by Alaska’s senators in Washington D.C. would help create five Native corporations for the communities. They would be entitled to about 23,000 acres each. 

There are a few challenges. As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer pieces of land available in Southeast Alaska. Brouillette says this has made it difficult to find potential land to include in the settlement.   

“It’s hard as indigenous people to look at your land and realize there is nothing there for you. We don’t have ownership of our lands,” Brouillette says.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) has raised concerns about the recent land settlement proposal. They say the corporate model creates an imperative to pursue short-term resource extraction projects such as logging. 

SEACC Executive Director Meredith Trainor says she has been coordinating with representatives from the landless communities to identify conservation opportunities.

“One of the things that has been most striking has been the immense creativity and diversity of possible solutions to essentially what is two questions,” Trainor says. “One is the restoration of sovereignty over land. The other is the opportunity to advance economic development in these communities. There are a lot of opportunities for solutions that don’t necessarily fall back onto logging as the primary solution.”

Brouillette says she is interested in exploring opportunities for ecotourism and carbon sequestration. 

“I think that the days of Native corporations logging their lands and people getting huge dividends are over. It’s not a sustainable way to manage your land,” Brouillette says. 

Recently Sealaska Corporation, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska, has reached out to public relations firm Cedar Communications to help improve outreach and advocacy for the five landless communities. 

The group has been helping to organize the Alaska Natives Without Land coalition and host meetings in the five communities to discuss possible land settlements. 

Todd Antioquia helped organize the meetings. He says the purpose is to gather feedback while informing the community. 

“This is going to be the first time that we’re introducing land nominations for each of the five communities,” Antioquia says. “We want to be able to help people see exactly where the communities would be selecting land. What their vision is for how they might utilize those lands.”

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